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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
Commentary
2/6/2006
07:08 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
Commentary
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Be Careful What You Wish For

Both my colleague Mitch Wagner, and I have been following the Chinese censorship issue that has caught Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco like deer in the headlights, and triggered a firestorm of international criticism. If my email and responses to our blogs are anything to go by - our readers have been avidly following this issue as well, responding with a mix of cynicism, business practicality and a longing idealism.

Both my colleague Mitch Wagner, and I have been following the Chinese censorship issue that has caught Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco like deer in the headlights, and triggered a firestorm of international criticism. If my email and responses to our blogs are anything to go by - our readers have been avidly following this issue as well, responding with a mix of cynicism, business practicality and a longing idealism.I think everyone recognizes that if you decide to do business in countries like China, which is desperately and pathetically trying to have it both ways - move their country into the internet age without letting any unsanctioned ideas slip in (good luck fellahs) - you have to abide by the laws of that country - no matter how repressive. And there is the argument that if they don't move now, to get in on the ground level of this gargantuan consumer market (and up-and-coming outsourcing destination, no doubt - China builds everything else for the west - why not software?), then they'll be hurting their business prospects for the future.

There is also the ever popular adage that business are in the business of making money, not fostering cultural revolutions or overthrowing governments (though history might quibble with that one a bit).

It's not hard to see the logic of each argument. All are true - to a point.

And Mitch is sort of right to laud Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco, first, for being grown up enough to get out there and explain their actions, and second, for starting to taking some steps to minimize the impact of assisting the Chinese government.

And it was good to see Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates call for an international dialogue on the issue, with the goal of creating "guidelines."

But let's not get too excited. First, these companies only stepped forward when explanations were demanded. Second, they may be making their censorship activities "transparent," but they are still engaging in those activities. (Many readers, by the way, do think the censorship actions are wrong or regrettable.) Third, when offered the opportunity to engage in a discussion and exchange of ideas about this issue, the companies declined to show up, two sending statements instead. Prior commitments and all that. (How many people do these companies employ?)

Here's the kicker though - four companies that abhor government regulation, and could not be bothered to show up when invited to a government hearing on the topic, are now asking the government to solve this problem for them!

Which speaks to one of the weaker traits of high-tech companies: They never want the government to tell them what to do, but they are often more than happy to have the government tell their competitors what to do - or not do. Antitrust, patent and employment lawsuits - take your pick. This may actually be the first time that several high-tech companies have gotten together with the aim of having the government tell them what to do.

The problem, here of course, is that the potential for backfire is enormous. One way our government traditionally deals with countries it thinks behaves badly is to prohibit U.S. companies from doing business there at all. I don't think that is what Microsoft, Cisco, Google and Yahoo have in mind.

Conversely, there are times when our government will choose to look the other way for various political and strategic reasons, when dealing with ill-behaved countries. And that won't help the Internet Four either.

A third possibility, which I've mentioned before, is legislation that attempts to set guidelines for doing business overseas. But what if well-intended laws miss the point and only make things worse?

At the moment, several congressmen have rebuffed the suggestion that the federal government take on responsibility for this issue. They say it's the vendors' problem even as they berate them for "squander[ing] not only their leverage to create positive change but American's moral authority." There's cheap and easy for you.

In the background is a raging debate over whether the US government has any right to tell another sovereign nation what to do.

Well, whether we have any rights there or not, China is not likely to let us tell it what to do. And yet, we can't just ignore the issue of censorship. We would not encourage any of these companies in markets overseas to exploit child labor, abuse the workforce or pollute the country - all illegal here, even if legal elsewhere. Doing so would outrage many customers here, and in other countries. So why would we look the other way on censorship, one of the most un-American values there is? Especially when we know it's getting people harassed, arrested and jailed.

The players involved have to at least attempt to address this. The best thing we can do is focus on what we think American companies should do, and what role if any, the U.S. government should play. But that discussion will never happen as long as the two groups - the vendors and policy makers - refuse to talk to each other. Meanwhile, Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior counsel, has an intriguing proposal: Treat censorship as a barrier to trade.

That seems like a pretty good stepping off point to a discussion that needs to take place, and soon. The question is, can we get both sides to the negotiating table, and get this conversation started?

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